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EDITORIAL

Put the brakes on the prison moratorium

Lawmakers’ efforts to slow incarceration will hurt those already behind bars.

Since 2019 the Disability Law Center has been demanding that correction officials deal with an ever-worsening mold problem at Bridgewater State Hospital.JohnTlumacki

The state’s only prison for women in Framingham, built in 1877, is the oldest operating correctional facility of its kind in the nation — a dubious distinction at best.

It isn’t alone among state correction facilities in desperate need of attention. Since 2019 the Disability Law Center has been demanding that correction officials deal with an ever-worsening mold problem at Bridgewater State Hospital, and has strongly recommended the building of a new facility (albeit one run by the Department of Mental Health instead).

Correction officials recently outlined in a letter to legislative leaders a number of “critical initiatives” and needed upgrades at prison facilities including special units to deal with prisoners receiving medical assistance for substance abuse and geriatric inmates who are confined to the corrections equivalent of assisted living at MCI-Norfolk or nursing care at MCI-Shirley.

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“These improvements require facility modifications that will require not only funding, but the allowance of discretion in how existing facilities are used — or not used,” Secretary of Public Safety Terrence M. Reidy and Correction Commissioner Carol Mici wrote to Senate President Karen Spilka and Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues last month.

Their plans for making real improvements in the lives of those living in state prisons are now at risk as lawmakers thrash out the remaining issues on a state borrowing bill. The one thing the House and Senate seem to be in agreement on is the need for a five-year halt in any prison-related construction.

“We need a five-year pause on new jail and prison construction and prison expansion to ensure that the pathways away from incarceration for women and for men, pathways that this Senate helped create, are being justly used and often used,” Senator Jo Comerford told her colleagues when the measure was debated back in June.

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It’s a nice theory, but one that ignores the facts on the ground — that people will commit crimes, they will be sentenced to prison and our criminal justice system needs to provide those inmates better conditions than it does currently.

Unless and until we become a community of saints, a five-year moratorium risks ushering in an era of potentially cruel and unusual punishment.

The letter from Reidy and Mici noted that the House version of the moratorium language “would restrict the Department’s ability to maximize operational efficiencies, address environmental hazards in aged facilities, and meet the evolving demands of the inmate population.”

Now keep in mind, Massachusetts generally has among the lowest incarceration rates in the nation. And the department’s current population is the lowest it has been in 35 years, allowing the closure of MCI-Cedar Junction over the next two years. That maximum security prison was operating at 68 percent of capacity on the day the closure announcement was made back in April.

Framingham, built to accommodate some 500 women, housed about 162 women as of April 2021, 70 percent of them convicted of violent crimes, 50 of them serving life sentences, according to a report issued by The Ripples Group in June. The group was hired by the state Office of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which oversees state buildings, to assess the future of Framingham.

It found the facility “oversized, physically outdated for its rehabilitative mission” and requiring a “significant capital investment” to make it work.

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“The Strategic Plan for women who are incarcerated in Massachusetts envisions a considerably smaller footprint and operation than what exists today at MCI-Framingham,” the report suggested. “In line with DOC’s current mission, at the heart of the entire strategy are rehabilitation as primary mission and human dignity as a non-negotiable without sacrificing safety and security.”

The plan, which does not specify a geographic location, envisions a campus-like arrangement with individual living units modeled on a more European approach to corrections and a separate pre-release center that will allow women to participate in work-release programs.

“If this strategy is implemented as envisioned, the resulting system for women’s incarceration in the Commonwealth will likely become the exemplary model for other states,” the report says.

But all of that seems not to matter to people who call themselves advocates for prison reform yet now stand in the way of much needed improvements with a singlemindedness that ignores the basic needs of those currently incarcerated.

The moratorium is simply a dreadful idea no matter who is governor and who will be running the correction system. And this one will be around long enough to kill any hope of improvement throughout the entire first term of whoever succeeds Governor Charlie Baker.

No matter which version lands on his desk, Baker would do his successor — and the state’s incarcerated population — a tremendous service by killing this before it sees the light of day.

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Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misidentified the recipients of a letter from Secretary of Public Safety Terrence M. Reidy and Correction Commissioner Carol Mici; they were Senate President Karen Spilka and Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.